A dazzling matchup of pulp and prestige, Dirty John begins with Debra Newell (Connie Britton) suffering through a montage of bad dates, her face falling almost imperceptibly with each disappointing revelation: He’s condescending/a heavy drinker/still hung up on his ex. Who can blame her, then, for getting swept off her feet by a handsome anesthesiologist named John Meehan (Eric Bana), who worships at the altar of her strawberry blond beauty and wakes her up each morning with a homemade fruit smoothie?
Based on the Los Angeles Times‘ addictive true-crime podcast, Dirty John is the story of a convict and con man who took catfishing to almost operatic levels. Claiming to be a doctor and an Iraq war veteran, John woos Debra — a successful interior designer in posh Newport Beach, California — down the aisle in a matter of months, much to the chagrin of her adult daughters Veronica (Juno Temple) and Terra (Julia Garner). Adapted for TV by Desperate Housewives writer Alexandra Cunningham, the show blends sun-drenched SoCal romance with an undercurrent of dread, as Debra discovers that her happily-ever-after is built on a reality that isn’t.
Britton is perfectly cast as Debra, a woman whose glamorous exterior masks a fear of conflict, and a naive desire for life to be as beautiful as one of her luminous interior designs. “I believe in dreams,” she coos. “Dreams you can live in.” Though Debra’s kindhearted mom, Arlane (played to little-old-lady perfection by Jean Smart), embraces John into the family, her daughters find him, like, totally gross from the get-go. Temple is hilarious as the churlish Veronica, snarking about John in her snotty California upspeak. “The minute I opened the door, I was like, ‘’My God, who is this homeless frat guy?'” she recalls during a family therapy session. Garner, meanwhile, captures the quiet complexity of Terra, with all of her fragility and fierceness.
It’s Bana, though, who may benefit the most from Dirty John; as Meehan, the actor pivots from charming to chilling and back again with astonishing ease. In a flashback moment to a previous marriage, John’s wife Tonia (Sprague Graden) confronts him about another woman — and with a tense pause and a heavy sigh, Bana sheds John’s genial demeanor like a snake slipping its skin. If this performance does not free him from a career purgatory of forgettable movies — hire him, Peak TV gods! — it will be a crime. A–